This year's car buyers may be in for some intriguing surprises when they go vehicle shopping. High-tech-for-all is a theme that pops up repeatedly in pitches from automakers.
"Our tech strategy is really about democratizing technology for the masses — rolling out technology that you would think would only be available on a higher-priced car," said Ford's Marisa Bradley.
Ford already offers stability control across its product line — even as standard equipment on the Fiesta, its smallest, least-expensive car.
And Bradley says the new Ford Focus, due out this spring, will include such high-tech features as a voice-command system. It will even offer Active Park Assist, an automated parallel-parking system that Bradley says improves on the one developed several years ago for Lexus, Toyota's luxury brand.
What else is new in higher-end showrooms, or already en route to the mainstream? Here are some technologies worth examining even if you can't afford them just yet:
Lane-departure warnings: Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says the organization estimates that lane-departure warnings in all cars could prevent or mitigate about 179,000 crashes a year, including 37,000 that cause injury and 7,500 that cause deaths — an astonishing figure, equal to nearly one in four of the 33,808 U.S. traffic fatalities in 2009.
Infiniti has gone further than most, according to spokesman Kyle Bazemore. For 2011, Infiniti married that to a blind-spot warning system that uses radar sensors to tell when another vehicle is in an adjacent lane's blind spot.
The result, called Blind Spot Intervention, pulses the brakes on the opposite side if there's a vehicle in the blind spot, generating driver feedback that Bazemore likens to "a big gust of wind."
Mercedes introduced a similar pair of high-tech safety features this model year, Active Lane-Keeping Assist and Active Blind-Spot Assist, which generate steering-wheel feedback that spokesman Dan Barile compares to crossing a rumble strip.
Lane-warning systems are also offered in at least some models by Volvo, Audi, Cadillac, Saab, Buick, Nissan and Hyundai, according to the 2011 edition of The Car Book, published by the Center for Auto Safety.
Blind-spot warnings: Available in a variety of U.S. vehicles and imports, these systems typically show a visible warning when a vehicle is detected in a car's blind spot. Volvo uses a high-tech camera that looks for headlights and spinning wheels, so that it can distinguish cars or motorcycles from fixed objects you pass. If a vehicle is there, you'll see a small amber light when you look at the outside mirror. "You don't notice till you look in the mirror for a lane change," said spokesman Daniel Johnston.
Drowsiness detection: Volvo's Driver Alert system alerts you if you begin weaving within your lane, a telltale sign of drowsiness. It beeps and flashes a coffee cup in a dashboard panel, with the helpful advice: "Time for a break."
Mercedes says its system monitors 70 factors, including how you handle the steering wheel. Barile said a sleepy driver is likely to make a "burst of corrective steering," for instance. The system notices, and triggers, a warning.
Frontal collision warning: More than 40 models feature the system, The Car Book says — mostly luxury brands, but also Toyota's Prius and its Sienna minivan.
Some just warn. Others actually apply your brakes to avoid accidents. Volvo has a special version that detects pedestrians, and can stop your car before you hit one.